Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
By Melissa Anelli
November 10, 2002
Better than the first, better than the first, better than the first.
By now, you've heard that phrase, uttered every time someone emerges from a Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets screening. It's become something of a mantra surrounding the release of this film, so let's get it out of the way right now: the statement is not spin, overestimation or wishful thinking. It's simply true. Chamber of Secrets is the rare exception to the rule, the sequel that exceeds the standards set by its predecessor.
That's not to say the film is perfect - let's not have any Godfather II comparisons quite yet. Chamber may be a much better film than Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but it still lags slightly under some of the same problems that shadowed its forerunner. Granted, the problems are markedly less pronounced this time and almost nitpicky to mention, but to fans they serve as frustrating reminders that these films have a ways to go before reaching the level of greatness they have every right and ability to attain.
But they are getting there. And that is a massive relief. The blockbusting success of Philosopher's Stone could easily have spelt disaster for the rest of the series, allowing the filmmakers to slack off and ignore their own faults. But the improvements in Chamber make it obvious that Chris Columbus and company took a hard look at their first effort and came away with some of the same notes any reader of this Web site would have given. In fact, should the movies continue to leapfrog in quality in this way, we could be looking at non-tech Oscar nominations by the third or fourth. That is, if the Academy ever gets over Harry Potter's British origins.
Chamber of Secrets' greatest improvement is of overall quality: the film is funny, wry, adventurous and at times outstandingly touching. The plot doesn't always plod, the effects are no longer intrusive, the cuts are (for the most part) wise, and the tone shifts easily from wickedly humorous (Kenneth Branagh doing anything) to dark and sublimely spooky (Christian Coulson doing anything). Columbus and scriptwriter Steve Kloves' increased confidence with the material is blessedly obvious, and Chamber on the whole has a more crafted, easier flow.
Most of all, it's fun. The bottom line is that Chamber is a ride, a great, fast, spooky ride that chills at the same time it tickles. It's family fare at its best - but for a reason that's been largely ignored by the press thus far.
Sure, Chamber is darker and scarier than the first film, boasting giant snakes and giant spiders and giant fangs and giant battles in which Harry climbs a giant face. But with such adventuresome action sequences easily filling the thrill quota, the filmmakers ran the risk of skating glibly over parts of the story that are even darker, even scarier: namely, a plot fueled by prejudice, genocide and ethnic cleansing. And slighting those ills would have been far more harmful to kids than shoving an oversized serpent in their face.
Thankfully, team Potter has been wonderfully sensitive to illustrating bigotry as it inflicts its first wounds upon virgin ears. Such excellent handling is witnessed by the key scene in which Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, steadily improved and vividly wicked) calls Hermione Granger a "mudblood." In the book, the slur is met with a roar of fists and wands; in the film, a quiet, disbelieving murmur creeps through the screen, giving instant, lethal weight to the offending word. And though the smackdown glare that Hermione shoots at Malfoy right afterwards is one of utmost loathing and even a hint of threat, she also makes vivid how acutely she's been hurt by such bias. It's Why Prejudice Is Wrong, in two mercifully non-preachy seconds.
Then Ron belches slugs, and it all gets rather funny.
Never in the film, however, does humor sacrifice plot or tone; the creators have amped the funny without teetering over into slapstick. Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart is a piece of such perfect casting it's a wonder we can stand to watch a scene without him. And then there's Jason Isaacs, who has realized Lucius Malfoy's character with such relish that even that righteous walking stick he bandies about should get acting credit. It's a good thing Isaacs and Branagh never work directly against each other, because the celluloid might have melted under the heat of all that charisma - as it very nearly does when Branagh and Alan Rickman (as Snape) are paired for the dueling scene. All the adults, in fact, turn in solid performances that sparkle ever so slightly over their Philospher's Stone efforts - especially, and poignantly, in the case of the late Richard Harris' Dumbledore. While the kindly old headmaster's friendlier moments were cut out of the last flick, this Dumbledore is much more his twinkly, wise-with-a-wink self. Sadly, we can only imagine how Harris would have handled future material; at least his last turn in Potter is one that's full of life.
But if we're here to talk acting chops, it's our Gryffindor trio that gets the lion's share of kudos. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint are growing into their roles according to the same gait we, as readers, get to know their characters: in each book, there's a little more to go on. Radcliffe's shaded, more explored performance gives hope that by Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry's true dark side is explored, he'll give Harry's desire to avenge his parents' death all the pathos it deserves. And there really aren't enough adjectives for Emma Watson, whose improvement as Hermione is not only tremendous, but dead-on-target with the Hermione we know in the books: she's still a know-it-all, but she's loosening up, maturing into the overly-sensitive, caring friend she was when last we saw her literary form.
As for Rupert Grint - he is, of course, still the hilarious little carrot-top, providing the wisenheimer commentary for which Ron's so famous. But one of the film's weaknesses is the downright character assassination of Ron. His intelligence and knowledge of the wizarding world has been given to Hermione, and all of his bravery has been passed off to Harry. It unbalances the trio. Ron's just the buffoonish sidekick with nothing to contribute, dragged into risky situations by his super-brave best friend. It takes Ron's sister's being abducted to finally show his nerve (a moment Grint handles beautifully, with a shocked and devastated "Ginny!" that says it all), and while it may be wonderful to see our Ron again, it's also too little, too late. Attention filmmakers: Ron is brave. He sacrifices himself in book one, willingly walks into that forest in book two, and in book three, green with pain, hoists himself up on a cracked leg just so he can swear to die for his best friend. He may bumble occasionally, but his chutzpah comes right to the surface when needed. Ron is brave. Repeat that, mantra-like, before Prisoner of Azkaban starts filming, please, we beg.
What we do get out of our trio in this film is their growth as friends. We see their true care for each other, and that's a lovely piece of development. It's certainly one that's absolutely essential to future movies.
Chamber's pacing also improves on that of Philosopher's Stone, but not enough. It stampedes through the plot, making every step toward the climax just too coincidental; the book carefully sets up suspicion and gives sufficient motivation behind each development, while the film seems to throw Harry onto a tightrope of discovery.
But that tightrope leads Harry right into the Chamber, and that alone is worth going with the expository bulrush. Oh, is that final fight fantastic. Almost perfect. Even knowing Harry must live, even knowing that the bad guy bites it, I gripped my chair so hard there are probably still fingernail marks in the upholstery. The basilisk is so real you can almost smell its breath, and Coulson's Riddle chills the proceedings to sub-zero temperature.
That is, until Riddle utters a wooden, unnecessary line like, "That bird may have blinded the basilisk, but it can still hear you!" and the fans throw up their hands in frustration. Or Harry, wounded and almost dead, delivers a repeat line from the first film, one this reviewer desperately hopes is not becoming a trademark: "Get. Yourself. Out." We know Harry is self-sacrificing - the way he's dying is pretty good proof of that. We don't need to hear him say it, too.
As I've said, it's frustrating. Because Chamber is close. So very, very, very, close to being a perfect translation. But greatness is in the details, and that's where the scales tip. The fans' great solace is that while the film could have been that extra bit better, it could have been so much worse. In the meantime, if we can try not to nitpick, we have some fantastic entertainment to tide us over until Prisoner of Azkaban. And if Azkaban improves nearly as much as Chamber has, we're going to party hard in 2004.
No pressure, Mr. Cuarón.